TOKYO — To say that staff and officials of the Tokyo 2020 bid committee were feeling tense and nervous would be an understatement. On a scale of one to 10, nerves were cosmic. Maybe galactic. This was the first of the three bid-city visits — Madrid and Istanbul come later this month — and Tokyo is a place where things are expected to be done right. As Yuki Ota, a London 2012 silver medalist in fencing would later say about how much he had prep work he had done to meet the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation commission here Monday, “My paper was worn out, that’s how much I practiced.”
The formality of the setting in which the bid committee meets the IOC does not particularly lend itself to easy interaction. Here is the Tokyo set-up, typical of such arrangements:
And then, first thing, Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of the entire country, showed up. Like all senior government officials who meet with the IOC, he was there to say that the bid, and its $4.9 billion infrastructure budget, had full government support. Which he did.
He told the IOC commission, “Soon, the questions we now face in Japan will be the same questions many others will face — like how best to rejuvenate an aging society, how clean and clear you can keep your sky.
“That’s why the torch must come to Tokyo again.
“Tokyo 2020 will inspire many others just as Tokyo did before in 1964.”
A couple moments before that, in referring to the 1964 Tokyo Games, Japan’s only Summer Olympics, Abe — whose government was elected just this past December — briefly broke into song. He sang a little bit of the theme song from those 1964 Games.
Evaluation visits are a tricky business.
Bid cities have a ton of information they’re trying to convey.
The IOC, meanwhile, has questions it wants answered.
Along the way, the issue is always whether the two sides can find any sort of connection.
With Tokyo, that question is perhaps more pressing than it might be elsewhere.
And they know it.
It’s why they paraded athletes, one after another, to meet the commission — and the press — on Monday, even Sara Takanashi, the women’s 2013 season World Cup ski jump champion, who is of course a winter-sports athlete and would not be competing in the Summer Games but is such a celebrity in sports-mad Japan that photographers went shutter-mad clicking photos of her at an evening news conference. She said she had sat in on the commission meetings and, amid the frenzied cameras, allowed, “I definitely want to see the Games held in Tokyo.”
The commission heard from Homare Sawa, the soccer player who was the FIFA women’s player of the year in 2011 and has played in four Summer Games. Asked later by reporters if she was nervous meeting with the IOC, she joked, “Of course, fighting for the gold medal is my real line of business, so maybe I like it better.”
Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose, meanwhile, not only met formally with the commission, he showed up again, later, in sweats, at Ariake Arena to play tennis with Shingo Kunieda, the Beijing and London Paralympic gold medalist. The temperature at the open-air court was in the 40s. Kuneida smoked the governor on his very first serve, then let up, then the governor — who is in his mid-60s and is a recent marathon finisher — got the hang of it. They produced some decent rallies and, as the commission members filed in to watch, Kuneida serving, the governor won a point. Game, set, match.
“Every single move was a curiosity for me,” the governor said later, adding, “I could learn a lot.”
He also said, “I love sports,” and in a move to show that Tokyo 2020 will be different from the Tokyo 2016 bid, which struggled to get into the second round, he observed, “Last time we emphasized environmental policy,” noting that the Olympic Games are first and foremost about sports and thus it would only makes sense to focus on sports.
“This,” he said, “is a celebration of sports. To enjoy sports — that kind of passion is very important, looking to the year 2020. I find great power in that.”
It’s way, way, way too soon to know whether this Monday in March will, come the IOC’s vote in September at its assembly in Buenos Aires, make a difference. There are three days yet to go here in the IOC’s visit.
The search is on for connection.